Stephen R. Covey dies; author of ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ was 79

Stephen R. Covey, a former business professor whose 1989 leadership manifesto “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” sold more than 20 million copies on the way to becoming one of the most highly effective volumes in the history of self-help publishing, died July 16 at a hospital in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He was 79.

He died of complications from injuries he sustained in a bicycle accident three months ago. The death was announced by FranklinCovey, the multimillion-dollar business and leadership consulting firm he co-founded in his home state of Utah.

Dr. Covey was quick to admit that few new ideas could be found in his landmark book and the publishing and motivational-speaking empire he built around it. He was preceded in self-help business literature by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., the McKinsey consultants who wrote “In Search of Excellence” (1982). Before them came Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1936).

Yet millions of readers turned to Dr. Covey’s books, whose titles included “First Things First,” “The Leader In Me” and “Everyday Greatness.” Fortune 500 executives lined up for top-dollar seminars where Dr. Covey was treated like a rock star, and President Bill Clinton once summoned him to Camp David, but not because Dr. Covey knew something they did not.

Dr. Covey had articulated a philosophy that — however platitudinous it seemed to detractors — transcended business and spoke to the centuries-old American values of self-improvement and self-reliance.

“This is not some kind of Big Bang theory,” Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn said in an interview. Dr. Covey’s achievement, she said, was a practical action plan for business leaders who no longer wished to be “the man in the gray suit” as they headed into the 21st century.

Instead, Koehn said, Dr. Covey challenged readers and listeners to think about their “character and integrity and a sense of one’s place not only relative to . . . one’s professional standing but one’s place in the cosmos.”

Dr. Covey disdained what he called the “flood of trendy philosophies” emanating from the modern workplace and instead offered seven seemingly timeless maxims. They had very little to do with business and everything to do with character.

And, he told the Daily Telegraph in 2004, “there was nothing esoteric or special about why I chose the number seven. . . . It just happened to turn out that way.”

The maxims are:

1. Be proactive.

2. Begin with the end in mind.

3. Put first things first.

4. Think win/win.

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

6. Synergize.

7. Sharpen the saw — a Benjamin Franklin-esque injunction to seek constantly to improve oneself.

In 2004, as self-help books occupied ever more real estate in bookstores, he amended his 1989 book with “The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness.”

As Americans found their lives increasingly busy and cluttered, Dr. Covey emphasized the differences between tasks that are urgent but unimportant, important but not urgent, and every other permutation of the two.

Critics charged that Dr. Covey was capitalizing on the anxieties created by a fast-changing global economy and that he erred in placing all responsibility on the individual. Overarching societal ills such as racism and poverty, they argued, could scarcely be overcome simply by putting first things first.

Mostly, his detractors charged him with offering nothing new. Reviewing his writing in the London Observer, British journalist Francis Wheen charged that Dr. Covey was “peddling banal truisms to ambitious but doomed middle-managers who dream of becoming chief executives.”

To that, Dr. Covey responded that “what’s common sense just isn’t common practice.”

Stephen Richards Covey was born Oct. 24, 1932, in Salt Lake City.

As a young man, he suffered from an ailment that caused his thigh bones to deteriorate and left him dependent on crutches for several years. The experience forced him away from athletics and toward academics and debating, he told Fortune magazine in 1994.

He also cited his family’s Mormon faith as a crucial influence on his later work.

“There is a heavy emphasis in Mormonism on initiative, on responsibility, on a work ethic, and on education,” he told the New Yorker magazine in 2002. “If you take those elements together with a free-enterprise system, you’ve got the chemistry for a lot of industry.”

Dr. Covey received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Utah in 1952 and planned to join Covey’s Little America, his family’s chain of hotels, restaurants and other properties. His grandfather, a shepherd, had founded the business in the late 19th century after almost freezing to death one night for lack of shelter.

But everything changed for Dr. Covey after college, when he traveled to England on a two-year Mormon mission trip. He was tasked with training the presidents of new Mormon congregations and discovered a passion for molding leaders.

“I got so turned on by the idea of training leaders that it became my whole life’s mission,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

He received a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1957, went on another mission trip to Ireland and then returned to Utah, where he became an assistant to the president of Brigham Young University in Provo.

Dr. Covey began teaching organizational behavior and business classes there while working on his doctorate, which he received in 1976 with a dissertation on American “success” literature since the Revolutionary War.

In the mid-1980s, he founded the Covey Leadership Center in Provo, which later merged with Franklin Quest to become FranklinCovey. Through his leadership center, Dr. Covey began offering courses that promised to help participants become “better” people and thus better businessmen and women.

Within a decade, the firm had grown from a two-person operation to 700 employees and annual revenue of about $75 million. According to the company’s Web site, clients include 90 percent of Fortune 100 companies and more than 75 percent of the Fortune 500 companies. Dozens of stores sell planners, audio books and other products based on Dr. Covey’s teachings.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Sandra Merrill Covey of Provo; nine children, Cynthia Haller and Maria Cole, both of Salt Lake City, Stephen M.R. Covey, David Covey and Catherine Sagers, all of Provo, Colleen Brown of Cedar Hills, Utah, Jenny Pitt of Bountiful, Utah, Joshua Covey of Draper, Utah, and Sean Covey of Alpine, Utah; two sisters; a brother; 52 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

In 1997, Dr. Covey published a spin-off of his original book titled “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families.” In that book, he emphasized that putting “first things first” meant putting family first. The book was stocked with anecdotes from his life, such as the time that he allowed his young son to spread peanut butter and jelly on his head as he carried on a business call.

This, Dr. Covey, wrote, was an example of “win-win”: He took care of his business, and his son had his playtime.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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